Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. £45.00. Pp. x + 272, ISBN 0-19-818676-2.
It is good to see that British women writers of the inter- and immediately post-war period are beginning to attract serious critical attention. There has already been considerable work done on women in literary modernism, and increasingly on popular literature of the period, but there are a number of interesting, and very readable, writers who can only uneasily be subsumed under the rubric of 'modernism' but cannot really be classed with such doyennes of the circulating libraries as Ethel M. Dell and Berta Ruck. Humble makes a plausible case that the 'feminine middlebrow', though it dealt with 'apparently highly conventional subjects', succeeded in making these into 'something strange'. Far from being 'cosy and smug', it was 'highly subtle and flexible', able to 'both consolidate and question' class and gender identities (p. 256).
Humble bases her claims on an interesting grouping, which includes the 'Golden Age' female writers of detective fiction such as Christie, Allingham, Sayers and Marsh alongside E. M. Delafield, Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Nancy Mitford and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Thus at one end the writers under discussion do shade off into popular literature, and at the other include canonical or semi-canonical figures. Her study is cogent and interesting and draws out some intriguing common themes between apparently diverse writers..
However, I am not sure I entirely concur with Humble's suggestion that they were all upper-middle-class either by origin or attribution (surely 'being a writer' fits aslant the class system?). I also would dissent somewhat from her claim that they focused on the trials of middle-class life: something that can only be sustained through rather careful selection of the works cited. While Delafield's A Messalina of the Suburbs (based on the Bywaters/Thompson murder case, though less well-known than F. Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to See the Peepshow) and The Suburban Young Man are not among her better known or indeed her most successful works, her attempts to move into different social milieux areof interest.
Humble claims in her acknowledgements to have been able to 'locate many forgotten texts' with the help of the libraries she thanks. It is a pity, therefore, that most the works she cites were either republished by Virago or have appeared in modern reprints and are thus relatively familiar. In particular I should have liked to see some attention to the non-Cold Comfort Farm novels of Stella Gibbons, which eschew the parodic vein and which would have been of particular interest in relation to Humble's arguments about class, eccentric families and crises of gender. Gibbons had a wide and sympathetic social range. Contrary to Humble's argument that while the attractions of the working class male might be briefly acknowledged these were never seriously considered for a permanent relationship, in Nightingale Wood Gibbons had one of the daughters of a stuffy rentier household run off with the chauffeur, not only of peasant stock (his mother indeed is presented as the local amateur tart) but several years her junior, and achieve a successful marriage. It would also have been nice to have credit given to Winifred Holtby's South Riding (an archetypal wildly successful middlebrow novel) with its broad social panorama and its sympathetic portrait of the lower class scholarship girl Lydia Holly (in general, the more provincial and less metropolitan or county versions of the feminine middlebrow - Dorothy Whipple is only mentioned in a quotation from Delafield - perhaps get less attention than they deserve).
A minor point of possible relevance that Humble does not address is the extent to which interwar British women writers wrote under initials or gender neutral names. I am not sure how significant this was in terms of self-definition, since it is hard to discern any distinction between the use of initials or full name and the type of book being written (the gender-neutral E. Arnot Robertson, for example, writing more explicitly than most about specifically female bodily experiences) but it would be an interesting area to explore.
In spite of these quibbles, however, this is a book which can be heartily recommended and should introduce new readers to the often overlooked or neglected women writers discussed, who are, as Humble makes very clear, still extremely readable as well as being of considerable interest to the student of interwar and immediately post-war Britain
Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine.